In the Spotlight

News & Features
Riverfront Recreation
By William Wilcoxen
September 14, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
One of a Four-Part Mainstreet Radio Series:
Bemidji's River Renaissance | Protecting the Health of the Mississippi
Balancing River Commerce and Ecology

The Mississippi River has been carrying North American goods to markets around the world longer than Minnesota has been on the map. But while the upper Mississippi continues to serve industry, more and more people are using the river and its banks for recreation and tourism. Cities like St. Paul and Minneapolis are scrutinizing their riverfront industries with an eye toward businesses compatible with recreation.

ON SUMMERTIME FRIDAYS AT THE WATERGATE MARINA on St. Paul's Mississippi riverfront, activity picks up early in the afternoon as boaters fill their gas tanks and get ready for a weekend on the water. J.T. of St. Paul stops hosing down his craft long enough to confirm he's seen more pleasure boats on the Mississippi recently.

J.T.: Uh-huh, a lot! you can tell by the way they're coming around the corner. Every five minutes there's two or three boats coming, so yeah, they are coming back to the river, yeah.
Policy-makers are encouraging recreational use of the river. In the Twin Cities, the Mississippi is now a National Recreation Area overseen by the Park Service. Cities are also paying more attention to the riverbanks, adding greenspace and cultural attractions. In St. Paul, a new public dock faces the construction site that is becoming the new Science Museum of Minnesota. Behind it sits a city park about to be renovated to accommodate waterfront foot traffic. Patrick Seeb is president of a development agency called the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation.
Seeb: The river has the potential - and the public spaces and park spaces have the potential - of once again becoming cultural gathering places for the city, bringing people from all walks of life, all income levels, all communities - and that's the role the river played at the turn-of-the-century.
Riverside beaches and parks, popular early in the century, gradually disappeared as the river became more polluted, and much of the pollution came from industry. The commercial and industrial opportunities afforded by the river gave birth to the Twin Cities. Minneapolis sprang up around the falls of St. Anthony, St. Paul around the two northernmost steamboat landings on the Mississippi. Judith Martin, who directs the University of Minnesota's Urban Studies Program, says, to the pioneers who settled the cities, the river was an industrial resource.
Martin: If you look at a place like Minneapolis where, y'know, the first people that came here looked at those falls, and nobody said, "Parkland!" - everybody said, "Opportunity to make money!" That's what you do there. You park your flour mills and sawmills along the riverfront, and nobody thinks twice about it because it's obvious, in the context of 19th-century thinking, that this is how you build a city.
Industries that were once the biggest, most prominent features on the downtown waterfronts have disappeared. The flour mills left Minneapolis in the 1950s, and St. Paul fixtures such as the crane-builder American Hoist and Derrick and the Kaplan scrap yards left the riverfront in the last couple of decades. But some small businesses that cater to tourists have seen steady growth in recent years.

In 1971, Captain William Bowell began offering visitors to St. Paul's Harriet Island rides on excursion boats modeled after the steamboats that once plied the Mississippi. Over the years, Bowell expanded his fleet and added Minneapolis rides. He estimates his packet boats have now carried three million passengers, and he thinks a steady increase in tourist traffic is partly due to a cleaner river. Bowell says an increase in wildlife is one sign of the river's rejuvenation.

Bowell: The last couple years now we've had eagles up the river here. I remember one time I was on board, and this big buck deer swam across in front of us. In fact, we had to stop to give him room to get by us.
Tom Welna is co-owner of a floating bed & breakfast and restaurant that occupy a reconstructed towboat moored across the river from downtown St. Paul. Both businesses expanded this year and Welna says both are as busy as they can be. Welna has lived on the Mississippi for fifteen years. He says more of the visitors who come to the river are returnees.
Welna: They get down here and there's a lot to see and experience and they wanna come back. We see that in the bed & breakfast, in the restaurant, we see that on the bike trails. People who a couple times a week, they walk their dog down here now, and they weren't here just five or ten years ago.
Growing recreational use of the riverfront raises some questions about its traditional role as an industrial corridor. Recreational users have joined environmental and neighborhood groups in fighting to keep some large and imposing businesses - metal shredders, for example - off the river. But Welna says not all industry is bad for tourism.
Welna: Some of the industrial uses of the river have become part of the recreational experience. For example, Big River publishes their Little Tow-Watcher's Guide, and we have a number of customers who take their Little Tow-Watcher's Guide, sit in the café, have a cup of coffee, look out at the river, and see which tow boat are going by.
Many of the barges that carry cargo through the Twin Cities are cleaned, repaired, or stored by a St. Paul company called Upper River Services. Company president Lee Nelson says as the public pays more attention to the river, there are more opportunities to educate people about the river's many uses.
Nelson: There's far greater interest in the river. We hear much more about it, and rightfully so. The river was - it's not fair to say forgotten - but a not-often considered entity in the Twin Cities area.
In the past, economic and environmental interests have often been pitted against one another and recreational, cultural, and historical considerations further complicate discussions about how to use the river. But Nelson says these days more interest groups are shunning polarization in favor of cooperation.
Nelson: I think many of us have learned a lot. No matter what faction you may come from, I think a number have learned a lot about the importance of all the different factions.
Recreational growth seems unlikely to interfere with movement of cargo on the Mississippi, but it is influencing decisions about what businesses are located on the riverfront. St. Paul's Port Authority plans to renovate a 100-acre riverfront industrial park with two goals in mind: to make the park look better by cleaning it up and adding vegetation, and to fill the park with businesses that rely on the river. Several current tenants do use the river, but Port Authority vice-president Mike Strand says other businesses - an auto-parts company, a trash hauler, possibly even the city-impound lot - will not see their leases renewed.
Strand: Clearly, there's a need for companies of this sort somewhere. We just don't feel there's a need for them on the river and - although we're not saying, "Move today," we are, over time, trying to re-focus our efforts to make sure the companies that are there have a reason to be on the river.
Strand says as commercial uses of the Mississippi are examined more carefully, heavy industries will have to justify their presence on the river. The University of Minnesota's Judith Martin says the fact that industry - which once dominated the Twin Cities riverfront - now must justify its presence shows how much things have changed in a generation.